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KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP) -- A few weeks ago I had to attend the screening of "21 Jump Street," a loose adaptation of the 1980s TV series, with R-rated "comic" material used to update the story. I knew what I was in for, but I had nothing else to write up for my outlets that week.
Sure enough, I again was amazed at the amounts of crudity today's audiences will endure for the sake of entertainment. As I began to write about the film, I couldn't remember one humorous remark or sight gag that didn't rely upon vulgarity. I just don't get why so many comedies from this past decade depend on "bodily mud" to get laughs. And why do moviegoers keep laughing at the same riffs in film after film concerning regurgitation, diarrhea or adolescent descriptions of sexual acts?
Before we get into this, I assure you my intent is not to sound as pompous as the George Sanders character Addison DeWitt in "All About Eve" when he proclaimed, "I am a critic and commentator, I am essential to the theater." Nor do I wish to come across as prickly as Clifton Webb's snooty columnist Waldo Lydecker in "Laura" as he mused, "I don't use a pen, I write with a goose quill dipped in venom." I'm merely frustrated and seek understanding as to what passes as amusement in this era.
Hollywood always has aimed at our baser instincts -- because we all have them and baser instincts are easier to satisfy than those of a more spiritual value. But there was a regulation during Hollywood's golden years known as the Production Code. Filmmakers, governed by this regulated code of decency and their own instinctive ethic, were careful not to exploit or tear down social values. Since the demise of the code during the late 1960s, Hollywood has slowly simmered society in a stew of moral ambiguity, excusing their offenses with, "Hey, it's only a movie." And, too often, we Christians have adjusted ourselves like everyone else to the same numbing content found in countless movies.
During this decade, we haven't seen a great deal of satire or parody that relies on wit rather than perversity. It's a more irreverent time and filmmakers and many filmgoers seem content with shock value ("I can't believe I just saw that."). For instance, in the 2010 dark comedy "Death at a Funeral," a scene graphically depicts an elderly man suffering from a severe case of diarrhea. As gross as that sounds, a pretty, stylish-looking young woman sitting behind me laughed at the moment with the intensity of one who has just heard Abbott & Costello's "Who's On First." From what I'm told, last year's "Bridesmaids" takes the nauseating results of food poisoning even further.
Hollywood is not so much a city as a state of mind, one that has been christened with many pseudonyms implying dysfunction. Its inhabitants simply supply what audiences demand -- or at least accept. In other words, moviegoers are just as guilty for the condition of the culture as the makers of movies.
Mike Myers, Ben Stiller, Jason Segel, Will Ferrell, Chris Rock, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogan and the rest of today's funnymen have built their comedy and reputations on bawdy burlesque. Most of these irreverent comic actors are not content with just bathroom humor, but insist on spending much of their screen time in the sewer. As for filmgoers, they sit in a theater watching and listening to bodily functions as if that's the only venue from which laughs can be mined.
Movies over the years have reflected changes in the society, but they also have influenced those changes, often proving the adage "Not all change is progress." So, I ask, do lewd and crude in the movies have little effect on how we conduct ourselves socially? Look around.
The most endearing films, like Bible parables, nourish the spirit as well as entertain. I maintain that if the Hollywood's cinematic art form is to better the culture and the society, it needs to aim up, not just placate our baser instincts.
"Garbage-in/garbage-out" may seem a strident declaration, but we moviegoers are bombarded by a great deal of media influence, much of which doesn't feed the soul. Romans 12:2 makes it clear that we are not to be governed by the world's standard. "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." You might keep that in mind when attending any new movie. Just don't expect Hollywood to.
So, are there any great comedy movies out there? Sure. In the list below, I've selected comic movies from different decades, each receiving critical acclaim.
-- "What's Up Doc?" (1972, rated G). Barbara Streisand, Ryan O'Neal. Very enjoyable comedy set in San Francisco. This is a good example of witty writing. I've run this one past younger viewers, so it isn't just this old guy who thinks it's funny. Indeed, these movies have been tried before a jury of your peers. And, you'll be glad to know, it's in color.
-- "His Girl Friday" (1940, not rated). She's a reporter wanting to get married and leave the newspaper business. He's her editor and ex-husband who has no intention of letting a good reporter get away. Not enough good can be said about this four-star comedy. Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and a superb supporting cast battle it out in this clash between the sexes where no one loses.
-- "The Party" (1968, not rated). Peter Sellers, who played Inspector Clouseau in the original "Pink Panther" movies, stars as a good-hearted bumbler who accidentally destroys a movie set, and then manages to do the same to a fancy party given by the film's producer. There are a few risqué moments, but it is pretty tame by today's standards. The visual gags are, well I think they are hysterical. I chose this film and the other comedies in this article to make a point – not all humor comes from bodily functions (a trend in many of today's comedies). In color, rot rated.
-- "The Great Race" (1965, G). This is a comic spoof of old-time melodramas, with Jack Lemmon very funny as the dastardly Professor Fate, Tony Curtis stalwart as the Great Leslie, and Natalie Wood luminous as a suffragette. I think this film has some of the greatest sight gags of all time, plus a great sword fight between Leslie and the villainous Ross Martin. It also has the pie fight to end all pie fights. Most critics only give it two and a half stars. What can I say, my colleagues were wrong. In color.
-- "Marley & Me" (2008, PG for some language and rude humor). This romantic comedy/drama, based on the true-life adventures of columnist John Grogan, centers around an unruly yellow Labrador who manages to dominate a newlywed couple's lifestyle. It's a smart movie about people finding their way. It's a film about love, responsibility, a pro-marriage, pro-life film that moves from comedy to drama with the ease of giving Lassie a command.
-- "Tangled" (2010, PG). Disney's retooling of the "Rapunzel" fairytale is classic. Where the studio's 2009 Animated Oscar winner, "UP," brilliantly touched the heartstrings as well as the funnybone, Tangled brings back the charm, excitement and coziness of "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty." (PG)
-- "Despicable Me" (2010, PG). The no-good-nic super-genius Mr. Gru is a mix of The Addams Family's Uncle Fester and Mike Myers' Dr. Evil. The comic story, the witty dialogue, and the pitch-perfect voice characterizations hold the attention of not just little ones, but their accompanying older companions as well.
-- "UP" (2009, PG). This animated treasure begins with two children discovering that they are soulmates and wannabe explorers. Spring ahead, they marry and share a wonderful life. But before they can go off to explore, life gets in the way. As in real life, the couple has their share of troubles. We see their joy at learning they will have a baby, only to lose the child at birth. Later, after a full life, the woman passes on and the old man un-expectantly has another exciting chapter added to his story. Though there are tearful moments, they are adroitly handled, giving the story and characterizations depth and feeling. There's great wit and heart in this production – that's the type of film that enriches little ones as well as accompanying loved ones.
-- "The Incredibles" (2004, PG). This hilarious, action-packed, animated adventure has a put-upon superhero family now denying their superpowers and living under a government protection plan. Taking on grownup themes such as the suspicion of infidelity and a barrage of violent do-or-die histrionics, Pixar Animation Studios and filmmaker Brad Bird incorporate cartoonish slapstick with thoughtful PG-rated wit.
-- "Hoodwinked" (2005, PG). It's the story of Little Red Riding Hood, with several of the main characters giving various accounts to the police -- kind of a "Rashomon" for kids, if you will. Witty, song-filled, it is a funny film parents will enjoy with the little ones.
-- "New in Town" (2009, PG for some language and suggestive material). An ambitious Miami businesswoman is transferred to rural Minnesota, a real-life town named New Ulm, and while she is there she re-evaluates her big-city values. She's there to cut jobs. But after adjusting to Midwestern sensibilities (not to mention the unearthly cold of a Minnesota winter), and a few comic situations, Lucy Hill (Renee Zellweger) discovers greater meaning in life, as well as the man of her dreams.
Phil Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective for Baptist Press and is the author of "Movies: The Good, The Bad, and the Really, Really Bad," available on Amazon.com. He also writes about Hollywood for previewonline.org and moviereporter.com. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).